Recharging the Batteries of Whiteness: Trump's New Racial Identity Politics
This piece first appeared in Truthout.
The US intellectual class has failed to understand the racism at the core of Trump's political project. The discussion is focused on two questions: Are Trump voters decent, salt-of-the-earth workers protesting their economic insecurity, or hate-filled Archie Bunkers? Are his transition appointments hateful bigots or mainstream conservatives?
What both questions obscure is that white supremacy is a social and political system, not simply a matter of individual attitudes. It is sustained not by barroom bigots but by millions of daily acts of complicity on the part of ordinary people — in New York City and San Francisco as much as in Alabama, and among wealthy elites as much as the rural poor. As Frantz Fanon wrote: "A given society is racist, or it is not." Questioning whether one region or class is more racist than another is the product of people "incapable of straight thinking."
Thinking of racism only in terms of hateful and ignorant individuals is convenient for well-off liberals as it enables the issue to be ascribed to people poorer or less sophisticated than themselves. It is also reassuring because it makes us feel like we know what racism is: after all, haven't we seen it on television newsreels of the Deep South in the 1950s?
But, in focusing on individual hatreds, we miss the bigger structural picture: the way the racist system grinds along, condemning millions of Black and Brown people to the indignities of hunger amidst plenty, and official violence narrated by proclamations of freedom. We miss how racism changes its shape over time as movements spring up to challenge it, and, in reaction, political projects emerge to give racism a new face, the better to preserve it.
Trump's election should be understood as the coming to power of such a political project. Its meaning cannot be understood by listing which members of his team hate Black people and which hate Mexicans, as if the racism of his project can be reduced to unchanging signatures of individual prejudice. Nor is the project altered if Trump appoints some persons of color. Rather, one ought to begin by looking at its racialized ideas and proposals, and how they relate to the wider social and political context.
It is too soon to trace with certainty the precise contours of this project. Whether it will be able to secure support from the Republican establishment and the corporate elite remains to be seen. But there is enough coherence to speak of an ideological center of gravity and direction of travel. At its core is a distinctive racial identity politics that views the US as undermining itself through politically correct multiculturalism and globalization, rendering it too weak to defend itself from the perceived civilizational threat of Islam and the rise of China. This political project builds on the history of Republican white supremacy politics but goes beyond and reworks it in significant ways.
Trump's European Antecedents
To fully understand it, we should turn less to Reagan and Nixon and more to the recent history of the far right in Europe, especially the reinvention of French fascism in the 1980s. At that time, members of the French far right began to downplay their Nazi pasts and instead emphasize the need to preserve cultural identity, defined as an ethnic "way of life." In this new identitarian narrative, whiteness became an ethnicity under threat from a ruling elite favoring excessive immigration, multiculturalism and globalization. Invoking the imagined threat of "Islamization" was a powerful way of weaponizing this formula of white victimhood. It powered the Front National (FN) party under Jean-Marie Le Pen to an electoral breakthrough in 1984, winning it 10 seats in the European parliament. The same formula will likely give his daughter Marine Le Pen a final round place in next year's presidential run-offs. After the events of 2016, it would be rash to write off her chances of an outright win.
Since the 1990s, and particularly in the shadow of the War on Terror, far-right movements across Western Europe have learned from the FN. They have understood how the seemingly nonracist language of culture and ethnicity can be used to engage the mythological power of white victimhood. And they understand that a different rhetorical relationship to Jewishness enables a plausible defense against accusations of neo-Nazism. Since the end of World War II, Europe has tended to equate racism with Nazism, and Nazism with anti-Semitism. Thus, mainstream acceptability for the far Right is aided by publicly substituting Islamophobic for anti-Semitic conspiracy theories, and describing Israel — traditionally hated by post-war fascist movements — as a frontline state in the West's war on Islam. The Vlaams Belang (VB) party in Belgium and the Party for Freedom (PVV) in the Netherlands have both followed this path, giving rise to the seeming paradox of far-right Zionists with Nazi pasts — and a barely submerged anti-Semitism.
In the US, this kind of politics has been closely associated with the hugely popular Breitbart News. The Le Pens have been referred to on 17,500 pages of Breitbart's website according to Google's search engine; PVV leader Geert Wilders is on almost 4,000. To Breitbart, they are heroes defending Europe from excessive multiculturalism, globalization and an imminent Islamic takeover, the counterparts to Trump in the United States. One of Breitbart's most frequent contributors is David Horowitz, a leading figure in the networks of Islamophobic propaganda in the US; his organization, the Freedom Center, funds Wilders' political campaigns in the Netherlands. As its former chairman Stephen K. Bannon said in 2014, Breitbart News firmly believes it is leading a right-wing "global revolt" that includes the Front National in France, Wilders in the Netherlands, Narendra Modi's government in India and Nigel Farage's UK Independence Party (UKIP), which this year achieved its aim of a referendum vote to leave the European Union. All of these parties are united in ethnic separatism and anti-Muslim racism, which they present as the insurgent, antiestablishment common sense of ordinary folk.
The appointment of Bannon as chief strategist underlines the influence that this identitarian far-right politics will have in the Trump White House. Significantly, when Bannon was recently accused of anti-Semitism, it was easy for his supporters to dismiss the allegations by pointing to Breitbart News's support for Israel. Meanwhile, the neo-Nazi spectacle of Richard Spencer's pro-Trump rally in Washington, D.C., provided a helpful distraction, giving the reassuring impression that fascists are still recognizable by the same old signifiers. A week of outrage and the news media moved on, leaving Bannon's less obvious version of fascism unscathed.
Playing on Narratives of White Victimhood
The power of this racial identity politics lies in its implicitly racial narrative of white victimhood. With this narrative, Trump can tell a story that explains why things are so bad: the reason the corporate elite is not even embarrassed by its own failures is that, in embracing an empty globalism, it no longer has any racial attachment to the mass of "ordinary" Americans; and the reason policy-making in Washington is so arrogantly out of touch is because it is controlled by these same deracinated globalists.
Trump has been in the business of race construction as long as he has been in the business of building construction. His path to the White House began in 2011 with his mainstreaming of the racist conspiracy theory that Obama was born in Kenya. The subtext was that the United States had a secretly Muslim president working for the "enemy." The point was: the multiculturalism Obama represents was really a kind of subversion. Two-thirds of Trump supporters told pollsters in mid-2015 that Obama was Muslim. With Newt Gingrich, Frank Gaffney, Stephen Bannon and Ben Carson, Trump has surrounded himself with advocates of the theory that the Muslim Brotherhood is secretly taking over the US government and attempting to implement sharia law — the 21st-century equivalent of the anti-Semitic Protocols of the Elders of Zion forgery.
More generally, the stereotype of the cosmopolitan Jewish banker of early 20th century anti-Semitism has been transformed into what Bannon calls "the party of Davos," which now threatens "the Judeo-Christian West" with an implicitly anti-white multicultural globalization. Trump's ideology thus provides a way to connect legitimate anger at the failures of capitalism to a defense of a victimized whiteness. One of Trump's campaign successes has been to get the intellectual class to talk more and more about the "white working class" as the main victim of corporations, rather than understand the working class as multiracial.
This new way of mobilizing racial identity is recruiting millions of people into continuing complicity with white supremacy without their having to invest in the full-blown bigotry of a Klan-style political movement. Moreover, it has outflanked the elite liberalism of Obama and the Clintons. The Democratic Party leadership has sought to reform America's racial capitalism to enable people of color to enter the elites of wealth and power, without touching the basic structures of oppression and exploitation. They look up at a glass ceiling to be broken for a few but not down to the concrete floors where the many remain. A corporate-friendly multiculturalism along these lines means the US can publicly disown an oppression it continues to depend upon. It can tell itself a story of its own exceptional virtue while maintaining devastating inequalities and upholding them with state violence. It can proclaim itself leader of the free world while defending everywhere elites who profit from the non-freedom of millions.
Trump Exploited the Hypocrisies of US Liberalism
Trump exploited precisely this gap between the polite, liberal values espoused by CEOs and Secretaries of State, and the exploitation and violence they actually preside over, domestically and globally. His fascism does not need to start from scratch. His call for a ban on Muslims entering the United States makes explicit what was already implicit in the policies of the War on Terror under Bush and Obama. Similarly, his demand for a wall to be built on the Mexican border dramatizes what has been the official policy of both parties since the 1990s. This is precisely how Trump's politics thrives amidst the hypocrisy of the US's 21st century multicultural platitudes. It is not that too much liberal elite identity politics helped Trump to victory; it is rather the failure of elite identity politics to go far enough. Its antiracism starts and ends in the boardroom, leaving intact the deep-seated social, economic and political constraints that the majority of Black and Brown people face.
Trump's message is that only he has the strength to strip the veneer of civil society, so that the political game is revealed for the power grab it is. With the rules of multicultural political correctness set aside, he implies, all that remains is "them" and "us," the struggle of race and nation for supremacy. Under Trump, then, enemies will be named rather than obscured and liberal pieties dispensed with. In this sense, his vulgarity — the very quality that conventional wisdom sees as disqualifying — illustrates his ideological message more powerfully than rational argument. Even Trump's boasting in a presidential debate of the size of his penis was more than just an incidental obscenity. The subtext was that power would be wielded nakedly and without embarrassment. Obama deployed soft power; Trump's will only be hard. Against this masculinist message, Clinton could not compete.
Trump's positions on global free trade — which, on the face of it, break with decades of orthodoxy — also cannot be separated from his racial identity politics. The globalization advanced by Reagan and Bill Clinton was based on the assumption that US capitalism will be better off if the world adopts a system of liberal trade and investment rules. When Bill Clinton passed the North America Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) in 1994, globalization looked like Americanization, and US corporations could expect to take special advantage of it. The CEO of Salomon Brothers said at the time that the failure to pass NAFTA "would be a slap in the face to all leaders in the Western Hemisphere who have chosen the capitalist road over government-controlled economies."
Today, things look different. There is little chance of a socialist government in Mexico, so at least part of the raison d'être for NAFTA no longer holds. Moreover, globalization these days looks less like a means of securing US hegemony and more like a decentering of the West — which taps once again into that sense of white victimhood. Trump speaks of "the false song of globalism" that has locked the US into transnational rules, with the equality of status they imply. Such "international unions" are, he says, national surrenders "that tie us up and bring America down." Hence, his commitment to renegotiate or withdraw from NAFTA, withdraw from the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) trade deal, and challenge China's trade and currency policies. This contrasts strikingly with previous Republican presidents. George W. Bush, for example, attempted to introduce Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA), which would have expanded NAFTA southwards.
A Militarized White Identity Politics
More fundamentally, there is the sense that the world is no longer being won for America. To Bannon, the globalist project of world dominance through the spread of free markets and Western-style democracy has only enriched East Asia and destabilized the Middle East. It has also produced, he thinks, a bland, corrupt, overly commodified culture in the US, undermining the heritage of the West. It follows that the US's role in the world should be less about upholding and policing the global free market system and more about recharging the batteries of Western cultural traditions.
A war on "radical Islam" waged on multiple fronts would be one part of that. Like most of Trump's national security appointees, Bannon sees the West and Islam as locked in a millennial struggle that now requires a "very, very, very aggressive stance." Iran is an obvious target. Across the Middle East, East Africa and North Africa, the "dirty war" tactics of the early War on Terror will be back with a vengeance. Waterboarding is "minimal, minimal, minimal torture," says Trump; he will allow far worse. But, unlike under George W. Bush, the new War on Terror would not involve the nation-building pretenses of the neoconservatives.
It is too soon to know if anything like a move away from global free trade could be implemented and what form it would take. At present, the corporate establishment clearly believes Trump's policies will follow the usual deregulating orthodoxies: his election saw share prices go up while Goldman Sachs CEO Lloyd Blankfein says he believes Trump's policies will be "market-supportive." Even so, the tension between a new racial identity politics and global markets is likely to be a feature of his administration. Of course, capitalists cannot be relied upon to save us from fascism: the corporate class is more likely to see in Trump's fake antielitist revolt an opportunity to save itself from the crisis it has created.
After all, the existing formulae of center-left and center-right politics that have dominated the West since the end of the Cold War seem unable to resolve the crisis that began with the 2008 crash. Obama's presidency could only temporarily delay an inevitable reckoning. Establishment politics in the West is "crumbling before our eyes," commented Gerard Araud, France's ambassador to the US, on the night of Trump's election. At present, the far right seems to have done a better job of understanding the crisis and figuring out how to build coalitions that can exploit the new situation. Trump's electoral success is one result; the Brexit vote is another.
If Wilders or Le Pen secured political power in Europe, a reassertion of white supremacy and a program of ethnic cleansing would follow. The same politics will produce the same outcome in the US, doctrines of American exceptionalism notwithstanding. The mechanisms through which it will be implemented can already be discerned: compulsory registration programs for Muslims, mass round-ups and deportations of Black and Brown foreign nationals, a federal stop and frisk program, new "law and order" initiatives targeted at Black communities, restrictions on voting, and the criminalizing of Black Lives Matter, Muslim civil rights advocacy and Palestinian solidarity. The remnants of democracy would be shredded.
Such are the building blocks of a new far-right paradigm of government. With Trump at the helm of the largest surveillance system ever created and the capacity to carry out extrajudicial killings by drone strike on demand, the groundwork for a very 21st-century-fascism has been laid.
Our response cannot be aimed at restoring the US to a discredited centrist status quo. We must match in radicalism Trump's own rhetoric but ground it in a genuine program for moving beyond the failures of an unleashed capitalism. But the immediate priority will be for us to build our own wall: a wall of solidarity to defend ourselves from the attacks that are coming. "For, if they take you in the morning, they will be coming for us that night."
Copyright, Truthout.org. Reprinted with permission